*** Warning: This overlong review of Liz Phair Exile In Guyville contains, alongside various Lego pictures and the usual nonsense a lengthy comparison between it and a certain other LP that stole its’ name from Phair’s one 21 years before. Please feel free just to read the first 5 paragraphs and skip right to the ‘867 Down’ bit – although you will miss out on two separate uses of the C word, the link between Primo Levi and Cinderella, as well as me describing ‘Rocks Off’ by the Stones as ‘a fucked up numb-nutted strut’, which I am quite proud of. Warning Ends ***
The fire you like so much in me
Is the mark of someone adamantly free
But you can’t stop yourself from wanting worse
‘Cause nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst (Strange Loop)
On Thursday lunchtime I sadly blacked-out and when I awoke I was standing in HMV, Liverpool having inadvertently treated myself to two total essentials* a Cinderella Night Songs T-shirt** and Liz Phair Exile In Guyville. I departed, a happy little consumer.
I had a taped copy of Exile In Guyville for years, several years before I ever owned a copy of Exile On Main Street in fact. My mate and I were lucky and latched onto the LP straight away in ’93, (he was the one who actually bought the vinyl, I was skint, as usual) and I was suddenly introduced to this rather cool, decidedly sweary lady.
I thought Exile In Guyville was great, my girlfriend thought it was a bit monotonous and I can remember telling her, God help me, that what she didn’t understand was that Phair was excellent at writing about the complexity of the female experience; you know, with all its’ artistic barriers and contradictions and suchlike^. And quite a bit of swearing.
Ms Phair seemed to have just parachuted in from Planet Kool, fully formed and unvarnished. Her songs were sometimes a bit perfunctory and hesitant, yet at times there was a real swaggering rock sensibility there too. Lo-fi wasn’t a term I remember being used as a genre until much later on in the decade but much of Exile In Guyville is and then, to deny easy categorization some of it isn’t^*.
What I had forgotten about until recently was that as well as piggybacking on Exile On Main Street‘s title Liz Phair had also produced a 18 track double album. Later on it was being touted as a riposte, or maybe just a reflection on the Stones’ LP from a young, feminine angle. Phair has talked about it in interviews at various times, going into a certain amount of depth on it.
Now I have never quite bought into this story, it feels to me as though it has been retrofitted onto the facts somewhat. The fact that versions of some of these tracks had been knocking around for years seems to belie it*^. I have no doubt at all that Phair seized on this iconic, untouchable manifestation of masculine cool and thought what a great statement of intent it would be, as a self-taught Chicagoan indie chick to reference Exile… one in the eye for all the scenesters and taste makers who just patronised her and treated her as a potential girlfriend, rather than an artist.
But just like that great urban myth about Dark Side Of The Moon being written to be played simultaneously with The Wizard Of Oz**^, which I tested when I was a student, I thought in the spirit of cultural exploration I would put it all to the test – I could then explain the results to any passing ladies I may encounter.
So I made myself an appropriate playlist and have spent several days now listening to nothing else (cheating only once to play Night Songs). As this is 2018 I put Liz Phair’s tunes in the pole position, casting Jagger et.al as time-travelling Phair fans who slunk back to 1972 to write a heroin, salvation, wine and cock fuelled homage to their heroine; which may be what happened. So here are my deliberately lo-fi perfunctory findings on the meshing of both albums. With swearing.
6’1″ – what a great way to open your debut album. A refusal to be diminished by a break-up with a manipulator, a delicious kiss off set to some swaggering guitar playing: ‘And I kept standing six-feet-one / Instead of five-feet-two / And I loved my life and I hated you’. The idea is that it mirrors the fucked-up numb-nutted strut of ‘Rocks Off’, I get that except that being a mere mortal, Phair’s song is far more insular and limited in scope – Jagger and the boys had drugged themselves to the point where they could see every plain of existence, parallel universe and karmic possibility, worlds beyond human comprehension … and they were thoroughly bored with it all.
Help Me Mary: my very favourite track here – a refusal to give in to the expectations, casual sexism and laddishness of the cool guys in bands Phair was hanging with. At heart there is a diamond-hard refusal to give in and a desire for revenge here that I can relate to; ‘Weave my disgust into fame / And watch how fast they run to the flame’. I struggle to hit any parallels with ‘Rip This Joint’ which is a pure unrepentant, unthinking good time drive.
Glory: a gentle, muffled confessional about lust and a feeling of adoration, a reflected glory from being with a certain someone; this is a track that always pulls me right in. ‘Shake Your Hips’ is all about instructing a girl in a dance, telling her what to do, how to move, how to be sexy – a song of imposition, maybe casting light on Phair’s protagonist as a doe-eyed ingénue.
Dance Of The Seven Veils: the striptease here is all about revealing layers of rawness, the aggression that usually doesn’t bubble to the surface in relationship songs. In between enquiring about marriage Phair let’s her man know that ‘I only ask because I’m a real cunt in spring’ in a weirdly girly falsetto, an admission that feels liberating in the context of the song. Just to make this a tale of two C-words, ‘Casino Boogie’ famously hides the line ‘Kissing cunt in Cannes’ in amongst all the Burroughsian cut-up lyrics. None of it means anything.
Never Said: another favourite, the big-sounding radio rocker. It has a great sound with Phair sounding a bit like, 1537 fave, Kim Carnes fronting Urge Overkill. True dat. I can see why it has been paired up with ‘Tumbling Dice’ the only really friendly moment on Main Street, the only song you wouldn’t be afraid of touching with your bare hands.
Soap Star Joe: another favourite one, I never quite worked out what it was all about to be honest; disenchantment, maybe? I fail to see how it meshes at all with the dusty, hiding-speed-inside-your-shoe, rolling ‘Sweet Virginia’, which was the first track I loved on Main Street.
Explain It To Me: sonically swollen lo-fi mumbling, played out over some rather nifty guitar. Seemingly about imbalance in relationships, but it isn’t much of a song … and certainly not compared to the majestically tattered resignation of ‘Torn And Frayed’. Yet another reference to ‘Joe’ from the Stones too – when will these bands stop, umm, bandying my name around?
Canary: A vaguely fruity lyric about coming when called aside, this is a bit of an unprepossessing track, it’s all a bit deadpan for me. I don’t get a connection here with ‘Sweet Black Angel’s sly backwoods paean to Angela Davis, the Stones actually being subversive and political again to great effect.
Mesmerizing: Phair comes stomping back with a stamping scary challenge to a lover, her voice straining with the force flowing through her as she scares her beau into being fascinated by her. Some great bluesy guitar on this baby too. It stands as a direct counterpoint to ‘Loving Cup’, where the female protagonist is definitely not much more than a vessel. Phair basically shows us the difference between an 1890’s and a 1990’s woman.
Fuck And Run: the big one for me when I first heard it, because I’m a mucky-minded swear fan. I still think it is Phair’s best song too because of its plea for romance amongst all the commonplace fuckery is heartfelt, ‘whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?’. Deadpan never suited a post-coital song better. Linking it with ‘Happy’ is one of the better match ups, Richards’ singing that all he needs is love to keep him happy, it is a much less cynical track then I ever thought.
Girls! Girls! Girls!: I love the tense, unfinished edge to this track and Phair singing about how she takes advantage of every man she meets, a boast that never quite rings true. Quite how this links into the scuffling ‘Turd On The Run’ is anyone’s guess, unless we take the song at face value and agree he’s been badly used – I don’t, it’s about the band’s rootless thrill seeking as far as I can tell.
Divorce Song: another contender for my favourite song on Guyville, this acutely observed tale of a road trip gone very badly wrong, how little things flag deeper discontentment. I could hear Lucinda Williams singing this one. The jump from the very personal to the broad brush pain of ‘Ventilator Blues’ doesn’t make much of a case for the link theory.
Shatter: after a gentle instrumental opening a repentant Phair sings of desperately wanting to be with her lover, despite having some sleazy side action herself. Phair in full on monotone mode here. You can link ‘I Just Want To See His Face’ in with it, but only if you just stick at the title and don’t sink any deeper.
Flower: you thought you’d heard Phair being rude before? listen carefully as over an experimental groove she chants about wanting to do things to you that would make Missy Elliott blush pink, ‘I’ll fuck you ’til your dick is blue’ being the least of it. I love it and there is still something a little shocking about hearing a woman sing this, there shouldn’t be in 2018 but there is. Contrast this with Jagger admitting some vulnerability on ‘Let It Loose’ – Phair’s dick is bigger and meaner than Mick’s on this pairing.
Johnny Sunshine: Phair gets her two voices thang going again where she sings high over her own lower-pitched vocals. I think this tale of a toxic breakup just isn’t up to much, ironic title aside. For the Stones on ‘All Down The Line’ the leaving is a liberation, the wind in their tousled locks a reminder they’re alive – brush off the sighing women and leave ’em by the city limits.
Gunshy: a muted messy tune about not a lot, to my ears. It can only relate to ‘Stop Breaking Down’ as a polar opposite, which isn’t enough.
Stratford-On-Guy: The Shakespeare reference is a cheeky nod to Phair’s most expansive and poetic lyric which she completely forgot to write any sort of tune for, which irritates me, ‘In 27-D, I was behind the wing / Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen’. It does share a certain realisation and reverie with the mighty ‘Shine A Light’, which has tune enough for both.
Strange Loop: Some arty VU-esque strumming leads into a somewhat resigned declaration of defiance, I read it as a dismissal of a former paramour who turned out to be shallow and unworthy. There is an interesting counterpoint with ‘Soul Survivor’ here, where the man is bemoaning the woman who has come out of her shell, who is starting to happen and wanting to flee. Maybe there is something in all this theory after all.
So I remain unconvinced by the whole high concept superheroine origin story for Exile In Guyville, sure there are some very interesting juxtapositions and some parings work but overall it isn’t a cohesive enough snap for me. Liz Phair has produced a really spunky, exciting debut LP here, albeit with a few tunes I tend to skip through but at its’ best you get a defiant, cool, sexy, contradictory jumble of feelings and stances. At the time you could sense someone very interesting and new had walked into the room and it is an album that has stood the test of 21 years.
And there’s swearing.
PS. Thank you for sticking with me until the end – the comparison just had to be done though, for the sake of the generations yet to come who will undoubtedly realise that if they are tall it is because they are standing on the shoulders of giants.
PPS. This is an interesting interview/overview too.
*you know like food, toothpaste, new tyres for the 1537-Mobile, these being just some of the things I should have bought instead.
**a MF-ing Night Songs tee in HMV in 2018?!! I had to buy it, I saw it the day before and to paraphrase Primo Levi ‘If not now, when? If not me, then who?’
^possibly this is the reason why she is no longer my girlfriend^^.
^^she’s my wife. The nascent Mrs 1537, as she was then/is now, clearly had a deep-seated need to have female creativity explained to her, like she was slightly simple, for the rest of her natural days.
^*possibly mirroring the impossibility of summarizing and neatly categorizing the myriad aspects of the female experience itself. As I probably explained …
*^Matador Records have just released a great-looking box set of Exile In Guyville which features vinyl versions of the 3 self-made tapes Phair was circulating amongst her friends in Chicago and some additional cover nudity. The standard vinyl version was more in my price range though.
**^and the lesser known but TOTALLY TRUE rumour that Wish You Were Here was designed to be played simultaneously with Porky’s. Don’t believe me? try it, enrich your cultural life.